After the deluge: India's reconstruction following the 2004 tsunami

Originally published


I. Summary
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, killed more than 280,000 people in South and Southeast Asia, including more than 10,000 in India. The roiling sea devastated large sections of coastal areas in India's southeastern states and virtually destroyed the coastal economy. Some 200,000 homes were destroyed or damaged on India's mainland. Countless lives were uprooted and shattered. Overall losses and damages are estimated at more than a billion US dollars. At least 647,556 persons were displaced and moved into emergency shelters.

In a sign of India's increasing confidence and abilities, New Delhi refused international offers to help with relief and rescue operations, as the government said it had sufficient resources to provide immediate disaster relief. India even dispatched immediate assistance to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives, which had suffered comparatively more from the tsunami. The Indian government adeptly coordinated its efforts with national and international non-governmental organizations, which also played an important role in providing humanitarian relief.

In India as elsewhere, despite the immense scale of the tragedy, the reaction to the tsunami has followed a model familiar from humanitarian disasters worldwide. The first phase was immediate rescue and relief, including clearing debris, cremating bodies, and setting up temporary relief camps for survivors with safe water and food. The second phase -- currently underway -- is rehabilitation, which will stretch over at least two years and includes the building of permanent homes for those displaced by the tsunami (referred to as internally displaced persons, or IDPs), along with economic and ecological rehabilitation. The final reconstruction phase that will stretch up to 2010 will take a "build back better" approach with an emphasis on sustainable livelihood, improving the productivity and profitability of agriculture and fisheries, and strengthening environmental defense systems.

Human Rights Watch visited several affected villages in Tamil Nadu state and the union territory of Pondicherry in January 2005, a month after the tsunami. By the time of our visit, emergency operations were winding down, the relief camps had been closed, and the government had embarked on phase two rehabilitation efforts. The local administration had begun providing temporary shelters and restoring infrastructure. A detailed damage assessment had been started. Schools had reopened in many of the affected districts. In addition, the government had solicited international donor agencies, including the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Asian Development Bank, to help fund the rehabilitation process in coordination with the national effort.

By most accounts, the national and state governments -- -- particularly the government of Tamil Nadu state, which bore the brunt of the tragedy in India -- -- responded promptly to the crisis, immediately launching relief and rescue operations and assisting survivors, especially the fishing communities of the seashore. Those who survived the devastation wrought by the tsunami said that their immediate concern was to maintain the basic necessities of life -- -- food, livelihood and shelter.

Human Rights Watch received several reports of problems with distribution of food and provision of shelter during the immediate relief effort. Such shortcomings would not necessarily be noteworthy given the size of the disaster and relief effort, but in this case, as described below, they highlight more systemic and potentially enduring failures to take into account the needs of different vulnerable communities. Particularly worrisome were consistent reports of discrimination based on caste status in the distribution of aid. While the government changed some policies when it was made aware of discriminatory practices on the ground, the greatest source of trouble seemed to be discrimination against Dalits by other victims of the tsunami, notably the communities of fishermen, who view themselves as belonging to a higher caste. Rooting out such ingrained discrimination will require more proactive measures from the government.

Many farmers and farm laborers living close to the coast were also affected when their fields were deluged by seawater, ruining the harvest and the soil. Most residents of such areas are sharecroppers, tenants, or landless agricultural laborers; many are Dalits (so-called untouchables). This group was ignored during initial relief efforts because it did not suffer as many direct casualties from the tsunami. However, most of the families concerned subsist on agriculture and daily wages and lost their livelihoods. When the government and NGOs started delivering emergency rations to this group, members of fishing communities -- who had suffered greater casualties -- often blocked access, saying relief was unnecessary because sharecroppers, tenants, and landless agricultural laborers had suffered fewer deaths.

Thousands of other people, such as traders, carpenters, and cleaners whose livelihood is indirectly supported by the fishing communities, voiced similar complaints about shortcomings in the relief effort.

Human Rights Watch recognizes the substantial achievements of the Indian government, as well as those of NGOs in addressing the massive disaster. Still, policy changes are necessary if rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts are to best serve all of those who directly or indirectly suffered the fury of the tsunami. Our main concerns include:

  • persistent reports of discrimination against Dalits and members of tribal groups by other caste groups;

  • government failure to address the particular needs of women and girls, including failure to provide adequate sanitation and health facilities in some temporary shelters to protect their privacy and security;

  • inadequate measures to protect the disabled among those affected by the tsunami;

  • problems in protecting the livelihood of people without assets such as wage laborers or tenant farmers;

  • inadequate transparency and consultation with community groups, which will be crucial to successful long-term relocation of displaced people and development of coastal land;

  • problems in compensating people who had either lost title to their property or who lacked proper title because they resided on unused government land.
As we set out more fully below, some of these issues have hampered the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases of India's efforts to deal with the tsunami. One way to help ensure that all those affected by the tsunami are fairly and appropriately assisted in the coming months and years is to incorporate a human rights perspective in the reconstruction process. We believe such an approach is also the one most likely over time to generate the kind of local initiative and economic activity essential to full recovery. It is our hope that in addressing the urgent economic and social problems raised by the tsunami, the Indian government seriously grapples with pre-existing political, social, and economic rights violations that have beset the people of the affected areas, and that national and local authorities will be more sensitive to these issues when framing a permanent disaster management policy.

Although India has enacted legislation and policy to protect vulnerable groups such as Dalits, tribal groups, religious minorities, women and children, it has had difficulty implementing these policies, particularly in a disaster situation. Doing so in the context of the tsunami relief and reconstruction effort (as well as in response to future natural disasters) will require effective training and education of district officials who are usually the first to handle such crises. Human Rights Watch also recommends that the government of India, state and district administrations, voluntary groups and donor agencies take the following steps:

  • improve public education and law enforcement efforts to better combat caste-based discriminatory practices and fully implement the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995;

  • seek to restore a sustainable livelihood for all communities of fishermen by ensuring that fishermen have adequate access to the coastline, and have proper boats and implements necessary to resume their trade;

  • seek to restore a sustainable livelihood for communities indirectly affected by the tsunami, by creating compensation mechanisms that account for non-tangible assets, and by providing alternate employment for daily wage laborers in local reconstruction efforts;

  • provide equitable distribution of resources without caste, gender, or religious prejudice;

  • provide adequate measures to meet the protection needs of women, children and the disabled;

  • engage in consultations with local communities to prevent arbitrary or discriminatory relocation or any unreasonable denial of the option to return home; and

  • encourage cooperation among government officials, non-governmental organizations and donor agencies to prevent uneven or inefficient distribution of resources.
Human Rights Watch also urges the Indian government to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (the Guiding Principles) when addressing the needs of tsunami victims. The UN Guiding Principles apply not only to persons displaced by armed conflict and violations of human rights, but also by natural disasters. These principles call on authorities to provide internally displaced persons with an adequate standard of living, and at a minimum ensure their safe access to:

(a) Essential food and potable water;

(b) Basic shelter and housing;

(c) Appropriate clothing; and

(d) Essential medical services and sanitation.

The Guiding Principles also call on authorities to provide aid on a non-discriminatory basis and to take "special efforts ... to ensure the full participation of women in the planning and distribution of these basic supplies." Furthermore, the guidelines clearly state that "internally displaced persons, such as children, especially unaccompanied minors, expectant mothers, mothers with young children, female heads of household, persons with disabilities and elderly persons, shall be entitled to protection and assistance required by their condition and to treatment which takes into account their special needs."

A more detailed set of recommendations appears at the end of this report.

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